Mass Effect 3 Is a Flawed, Imperfect Ending to a Glorious Gaming Narrative: Retro Review
Despite what you may have heard, Mass Effect 3 is a fantastic ending to an inspired trilogy of games. We’ve discussed (at length) the controversy that led to the Extended Cut DLC. All that aside, the game we get to close out the original Mass Effect series is nothing short of a triumph. The game feels larger and more expansive than ever, despite maintain much of the liner, closed-off mission aspects of the previous title. You still can’t mindlessly roam around planets in a tank like in the first game. However, the story missions and side quests (not the planet scanning fetch quests, but ones where you land somewhere) are great. As you make your way back to Earth for the big final battle with the Reapers, every character you cared about gets some kind of story resolution.
Some of the payoffs are a big part of the game, such as what happens to the krogans or the quarians. Others are smaller, more personal tales, such as the fate of Jack or Jacob (if they survived your Mass Effect 2 playthrough). The moments leading up to the final battle, we you can have one last conversation with your squadmates are genuinely touching. The combat mechanics are slightly upgraded and enemies are a little tougher on all play settings. The settings of your missions are all relevant to the game, such as the homeworlds of the aforementioned krogan and quarian people. Finally, the last combat missions are truly challenging and as intense as one can expect. Now, the Mass Effect 3 ending is still a sore point with many fans. I didn’t love it, but I accepted it.
Still, we’ve covered the controversy, so let’s look at what Mass Effect 3 got completely right.
The Opening of Mass Effect 3 Is Just Perfect
Image via BioWare
The opening sequence features largely unchanged mechanics from the previous title. You get a short tutorial with character movement and dialogue, then a brief, but limited, combat tutorial. In fact, I think part of what makes the flawed ending sting so much is how perfectly they executed the opening of Mass Effect 3.
You start with a cut scene letting you know the Reapers are here. We see that Shepard is on house arrest, and meet James, voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr. Through the short exchange, we get the sense he’s Shepard’s guard but also deeply respects the beloved Commander. We catch up with Anderson and the surviving Virmire crew member. Then the shit hits the fan, and the player is thrown right into the action.
Via a harrowing escape and series of shoot-outs with the new enemies, players make their way to a rendezvous with the Normandy. As Shepard says goodbye, we are treated to a gorgeously scored scene. Shepard has to leave Earth (or there’d be no game to play), and the Commander watches as civilians are evacuated, including a fresh-faced boy we will soon get sick of seeing.
Just as you start to catch your breath from an intense tutorial, the score unleashes “the Reaper sound,” and all those escaping civilians end up incinerated by a massive laser. It’s bleak and heartbreaking and thrilling all at the same time. Honestly, the heavy-lifting is done by the composing team of Sasha Dikicyan, Sam Hulick, Christopher Lennertz, Clint Mansell, and Cris Velasco.
The full introductory sequence runs about 23 minutes, or the length of an episode of The Office. Yet, it doesn’t feel “too long.” In fact, at least in my case, I wanted to replay that sequence immediately.
Mass Effect 3 Is So Much More Than the Ending
Image via BioWare
On my first playthrough, I found the ending very frustrating. Not what happened, but how I got there. The last battles were really tough, and I encountered a weird glitch where I’d fail the last mission even if I achieved the objective. So, limping down a series of hallways to get to the final conversations bugged me. Nonetheless, it was almost the perfect game ending for something like Mass Effect. Instead of a giant boss battle with strange mechanics, the final missions are just conversations. Yet, before that point, I loved every aspect of the game. I enjoyed the RPG elements of building war assets and galaxy-wide fetch quests. (Full disclosure: I also didn’t mind resource scanning in the previous game.) I was also very pleased that they brought back customizable weapons, an element that makes multiple playthroughs feel very different.
Also, for all the arguments about “bad” or “lazy” writing made by detractors, this game is an amazing accomplishment. This game features about twice the amount of dialogue as previous games, and they worked hard to give you different crew interaction experiences. For example, by visiting different sections of your ship, you can see crew having conversations with one another. Sometimes, you can weigh in by supporting one character over another. Also, depending on your romance choices, you can witness your squadmates hooking up. (Why should Shepard have all the fun?)
Ultimately, BioWare delivered a story that, at least, touches on all the previous characters’ stories and where the player unites the galaxy to defeat a common threat. In fact, it’s because storytellers got so much right throughout most of the game that the Mass Effect 3 ending stung as much as it did for some.
Mass Effect 3 Adds Multiplayer and People Still Play It
Mass Effect 3 also struggled because it debuted right at the end of both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 life cycles. Developers were already creating games for the then-next-gen consoles. Still, developers added a multiplayer feature where characters could play as different species and classes. Again, full disclosure, I have not played multiplayer much. Both because I am pretty bad a shooters against real humans and because my Mass Effect 3 is a PC copy with a mod added so I can use a controller. This mod, unfortunately, doesn’t allow for multiplayer, and the one that does “breaks” the game if you use both. The few missions I played on an Xbox 360 were fun enough, but again I am not fan of multiplayer.
Yet, despite being an eight-year-old game, Mass Effect 3 multiplayer doesn’t seem like it will be ending soon. There is a small but active player base and even a subreddit where they can coordinate their matches. Like all good extra content, you don’t really need to play multiplayer to enjoy whichever Mass Effect 3 ending you like best. However, if you enjoy multiplayer and Mass Effect, you still can even today. This alone shows that for all the drama about fans upset at the game, people still love it.
No One Really Likes Endings Anyway, and Mass Effect 3 Fans Are No Different
Image via BioWare
Part of the problem with the Mass Effect 3 ending is that it was, well, the end of this franchise. Sure, there’s Mass Effect: Andromeda. Even if that game wasn’t itself a comedy of errors, it follows a whole new cast of characters in an entirely different galaxy. For Shepard and the gang, this was all we’d ever get. Thus, it makes sense that some fans would be upset. Not because of the ending that was written but because it was an ending at all.
Personally, I am surprised that they didn’t take the route they did with Mass Effect 2. That game had a definitive ending for Shepard, and players could not import that character into the next game. They could have written definitive endings for all the characters, while leaving one option open to allow the story to continue. Say what you will about EA and their neverending quest for your money, but it takes guts to end a franchise like that. That there have been no successful Mass Effect games since only underscores this fact.
The Mass Effect 3 ending is as good as any ending we’d get, save for the aforementioned cheat ending that carried on the story. And no matter how one person feels about it, it remains a vibrant fandom with active social groups, forums, and subreddits. Like any good piece of pop culture, even though it’s over, the fans just won’t less Mass Effect go.
What do you think of the ending of Mass Effect 3? Share your own reviews and experiences with the franchise in the comments below. I should go.
Featured image via BioWare.
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.